Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Botanical Area
Within this area along the crest of the White Mountains are found some of the world's oldest known trees, the bristlecone pine,
Pinus longaeva. These trees may reach 5,000 years of age, though the oldest in this forest is 4,600 years plus. (The oldest known, 4,900 years plus, was found in Nevada.) More than 100 trees here are 4,000 years or older, and several thousand exceed 3,000 years of age.
Bristlecone pines are found from an altitude of 2,375 meters (7,800 feet) up to the timberline at about 3,660 meters (12,000 feet). At the timberline they border the alpine fell fields, while in the lower levels they intermix with the pinyon pine,
Pinus monophylla and the Utah juniper, Juniperus osteosperma. The bristlecones are also found with the limber pine,
Pinus flexilis. In the lower, non-forest sections, sagebrush is common.
While the tree may grow as high as 18 meters (60 feet) or so, most are smaller. The largest in the Botanical Area is the Patriarch Tree, some 1,500 years old, with a girth of 11.2 meters (36 feet, 8 inches). The longevity of the bristlecone is the result of a number of factors including an inherently slow growth rate, the lack of wildfires in the area, and rigorous edaphic and climatic conditions.
Soils in the area are derived from sedimentary sandstones, shale, limestone, and dolomite. Though retaining a higher moisture content than the surrounding sandstone, the extensive dolomite outcrops
are nutrient deficient. Pinus longaeva frequently grows in these shallow dolomitic soils where there is virtually no competition.
With an annual precipitation, primarily snow, averaging some 30 centimeters (12 inches), there is a minimal water supply. Moisture encourages rapid growth and the production of a less resinous and less dense wood which is more susceptible to decay and disease. The oldest and healthiest trees are found in the harshest and most exposed sites.
Since 1958, when the age of the trees was discovered, extensive work has been done in developing
ringcount chronologies. As the hard, resinous wood decays very slowly, indeed it is mostly eroded, it has been possible by linking living and dead tree ring counts to develop a chronology dating back 8,200 plus years.
Integrity: Grazing is permitted in the sagebrush area. There are several buildings in the area as well as roads and a picnic area in one of the main groves. It is prohibited to remove any of the pines, living or dead.
Use: Research, educational, observational, light recreation.
Ref: Schmid, Rudolf and J. Marvin, 1975. Living Links with the Past. Natural History LXXXIV (3), pp. 38-45.
Inventory of California Natural Areas
Revision © 2005 Steven Louis Hartman